Dinosaurs, evolution and the doctrine of creation


  • Jon the freelance theologian was recently asked to do a youth talk on the subject of dinosaurs, and whether the discovery of dinosaur fossils is compatible with a belief in creation. The substance of this talk is reproduced here, along with some specific points addressing the following question:

    Question 183, from Gillian

    Where does a Christian stand when there is constant mountain evidence for Evolution? With the discovery of DNA, which is so like our animal friends, why are there right wing Christians who still believe in the creation story as fact when science has evidence for a very old earth.

    There is a tendency to regard evolution as disproving the Christian doctrine of God as creator of the world, and explaining the existence of dinosaur fossils can be difficult.

    Broadly speaking there are two responses to the issue. One is to challenge the evidence for evolution and reaffirm the doctrine of creation by proposing a literal application of the early chapters of Genesis. This is often called Creationism. The other viewpoint is to see evolution as the mechanism by which God creates, with the early chapters of Genesis viewed as a pre-scientific account that is allegorical in nature, rather than literally true. This has been known as ‘theistic evolution’ in the past, although its supporters often now refer to it as ‘Evolutionary Creation’.

    These two views are widely divergent, so it is worth noting what unites them before examining them in more detail. Firstly, both views affirm the creative action of God and maintain the traditional Christian doctrine of divine creation. Secondly, both believe that evolution by itself is not a strong argument against the existence of God – although they approach the issue in completely different ways.

    So, what about the dinosaurs?  The creationist version

    A typical creationist viewpoint can be found on the Answers in Genesis website. The argument would claim that according to the genealogies in the Old Testament the Earth is around 6,000 years old. Dinosaurs are just one of many animals that have gone extinct in the fallen world since sin entered in after Adam and Eve disobeyed God.

    In this framework, most dinosaurs died during the world-wide flood in the time of Noah, but a few may have survived and these may account for Biblical references to dragons (which also appear in many other ancient stories). The creature known as ‘Behemoth’ in the book of Job (chapter 40, verses 15–24), which, it is claimed, sounds very much like a large diplodocid dinosaur from the description. Sadly the Behemoths have subsequently died out.

    Such an explanation is often referred to as ‘young earth creationism’. There are variations on the theme, for example, the idea that the six ‘days’ in Genesis relate to cosmological epochs of time, which accounts for the perceived age of the earth.

    Critics of this viewpoint would say it goes against geological and archaeological discoveries. Although creationists often employ scientific language to bolster their arguments, the science is often questionable. Even some of the claims made about the Bible are unsupported by textual study – for example the Hebrew word for ‘world’ and ‘land’ are interchangeable, so Noah’s flood may have been local in scope, not a planet-wide catastrophe. Similarly ‘day’ is not always used to represent a 24 hour period.

    Also, the claim that humans and dinosaurs co-existed is not supported by the fossil record. If all known existing and extinct animals have been contemporaneous, then the fact that different fossils appear in different layers of rock seems to indicate an unlikely amount of order in the chaos of the flood.

    So, what about the dinosaurs?  The evolutionary creation version

    Put simply, this view would state that the Earth is old and evolution is true but the process was created and directed by God to a specific end: the evolution of intelligent beings who would have free will, a moral conscience and a creative impetus – that is, a similarity to the creator God. These morally autonomous beings would be in ‘the image of God’ and capable of freely establishing a relationship with their creator.

    In this framework, evolution is a mechanism employed by God to achieve incredible diversity in living things and to enable life to develop and continue in all kinds of unlikely environments.  Dinosaurs are just part of this process that didn’t quite work out, for some reason. However. the ‘safety net’ built into evolution meant life survived the extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs and continued the process towards intelligent beings.

    While there may have been a literal Adam and Eve, they would not have been the only human beings. This provides an explanation for some of the tricky questions from the early chapters of Genesis, like ‘Where did Cain’s wife come from?’ and ‘Who was Cain afraid would kill him after he murdered Abel?’

    Critics of this viewpoint would argue that it undercuts the doctrine of the Fall of Man and therefore the idea of sin entering the perfect creation and separating human beings from God. It also dispenses with a literal understanding of the creation story, preferring to view it as a metaphor. However, legitimate questions could be asked about how far that approach can be taken to other Biblical passages as well. Fundamentalists often talk about the dangers of a ‘relativist’ viewpoint where a person just picks and chooses which bits of Scripture to agree with.

    Conclusion

    Both these viewpoints are in conflict with each other, but both of them show that evolution does not have to be regarded as evidence against the existence of God.

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